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How to write pop songs that make the grade

Former “American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi discusses teaching Hit Songwriting at Berklee.Evan McGlinn for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

The students in Kara DioGuardi's Hit Songwriting class at Berklee College of Music understandably thought they were going to learn about crafting a hit song from a woman who knows a thing (or 50) about it.

DioGuardi — the former "American Idol" judge who has written or co-written 50 charting singles for dozens of artists including Pink ("Sober"), Kelly Clarkson ("I Do Not Hook Up"), Carrie Underwood ("Undo It"), and Christina Aguilera ("Ain't No Other Man") and served as head judge on the Bravo songwriting competition "Platinum Hit" — had other plans.

"Truth be told, it's not only about songwriting, it's about life," says DioGuardi, sitting at a desk alongside three of her pupils in the classroom where she's been breaking down the ins and outs of the industry for 27 students for the last 3½ months. "I'm trying to teach them about life. And in life, if you come from your truth, I think you'll be a happier person."

She bemoans the course title, however. "What a cheesy name, let's be honest. Not a lot of thought went into that one," she says with a laugh. The New York native turns to the kids, with whom she has an easy, funny, big sister rapport, and asks "Didn't you think that because I was kind of a cheesy pop writer that it would be a cheesier class, probably?"


"I wouldn't call your stuff cheesy," says third semester songwriting major Stewart Taylor, who then goes on to earnestly discuss songs DioGuardi wrote for former Disney star Hilary Duff to the good-natured ribbing of his teacher and classmates.

If they did think it was cheesy, they certainly don't now, especially after DioGuardi hammered home the message about honesty in their writing.

"Having her tell us that so many times has probably been the best thing to hear," says Sarah Walk, a sixth semester songwriting major, of the instructor's constant refrain. "I think the first couple of weeks we were all just trying to sound like the [stuff] on the radio, and for me it was like, 'Shoot me.' I would rather just try to create something new and be honest and mend the two together than sit here and reproduce something I've already heard."


Which, difficult as it is to believe in the often cookie-cutter world of pop music, is the key to success, says DioGuardi.

"I'd rather have them bring in something that is groundbreaking and interesting and unique, that is not within the confines of what you would think a typical pop song would be, because if you listen to [the band] Fun. there's nothing typical about any of that," she says of the New York trio who earlier this week nabbed six Grammy nominations for their offbeat sound. "There are so many artists that are coming up now that are just speaking their truth, and they're coming from an honest place and they don't have to be within the confines of structure because it's that good and that relatable."

She also reports that smart artists want songs that reflect authentic emotions. "They don't want 'songwriter' songs. They want to be like, 'I felt something from that. Can I have that?' It's like a one-of-a-kind dress."

All of the students agree that the class — for which they had to audition and produce a song a week — has been tough.


"Mostly lyrics," replies sixth semester songwriting major John Silos to the query of the biggest challenge. "I'm way more of a melody man. Before this class lyrics were secondary, so they would come out as trite, as Kara loves to say."

"That's my favorite word," DioGuardi agrees with a smile.

"The biggest challenge has been working with other people," says Walk. "I've always done my own thing."

The ability to collaborate, especially in today's pop marketplace, is paramount, says DioGuardi.

"If you look at most of today's songs, a lot of them still are written to tracks, and you have about seven people on each," she says.

Grammy-nominated songwriter Claude Kelly — who counts "Grenade" by Bruno Mars and "Circus" by Britney Spears among his many co-writing credits — backs up DioGuardi on this particular element of her syllabus.

"Trust me, if you're not used to collaborating with people it can be a very awkward situation," says Kelly with a chuckle on the phone from New York. "It's almost like speed dating: going in a room with someone you don't know very well and either you hit it off and you make that chemistry work, or you spend a couple of minutes staring at each other awkwardly and trying to figure out a way to leave."

Kelly, a 2002 Berklee grad, says although hit songwriting may not be something you can teach, per se, he loves that she is trying and that Berklee is letting her.


"The one thing I think is great about having someone like Kara teaching a class about songwriting is that I don't think students get a good gauge — at Berklee or anywhere else, but specifically Berklee — of what it really takes as a songwriter to succeed outside of that very small elite music world," he says. "Kara is so good, at songwriting first, but also so good at knowing the business and knowing how to shop yourself and how to prepare songs in order to shop them to make them hit records. I think her opinions will be priceless for the students, and that's what I wish I had had when I was there, someone telling me, 'You're talented, but when you leave here, here are the tools that you need to focus on, these are the things that will give you a better chance of becoming a songwriter, and eventually a hit songwriter.'"

Berklee students John Silos (left) and Stewart Taylor discuss the Hit Songwriting class with their professor, Kara DioGuardi.Evan McGlinn for The Boston Globe

Indeed, not everything in the class is about melody, lyrics, or chords. Much of what DioGuardi teaches comes from business situations she deals with as a songwriter as well as a talent development executive for Warner Brothers Records and at her own publishing company, Arthouse Entertainment.

"There'll be an issue with splits and I'll explain to them what the issues were," she says, referring to the division of ownership on songwriting collaboration. "Someone will have a contract they're looking at and we'll go through that. Today I was talking about Pandora. So I let it be natural things that are creeping into my life and present it to the class as something that would happen."


DioGuardi believes that "Great songs are where your craft and your inspiration meet" and her students say they're beginning to learn what that means.

"The second I came from that pure, honest place it made my music so much better and so much more relatable and that was the big shift," says Taylor. "And you actually wrote the best song," says DioGuardi of his dancefloor anthem of self-embrace, "Liberation."

"You don't just take a class and end up writing hit songs," says DioGuardi. "Hit songs take years. I think that it's more about doing it over and over and over again. And," she says, like a hooky chorus, "me telling them the same thing, eventually it will enter into their own brain and they'll do it to themselves."

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.